There's a critical need to rebuild the capability of the public service

Experienced senior business leader Kerry McDonald says the "no surprises" policy brought in for the public service in the early 2000s has "reduced the quality of New Zealand's policies and their outcomes".
Maarten Holl/STUFF
Experienced senior business leader Kerry McDonald says the "no surprises" policy brought in for the public service in the early 2000s has "reduced the quality of New Zealand's policies and their outcomes".

OPINION:  This critique of the capability and performance of the public service - and State Services Commission, was prompted by the SSC's release of its Model Standards for Positive and Safe Workplaces. 

The context for the release is important. It slots within a long series of public service performance failures, with distressed senior/chief executives publicly denying or apologising, ministers implausibly distancing themselves and the SSC behaving like an independent prosecutor rather than the peak body with overall responsibility.  

This situation is not new. The reforms of the 1980s were only partial and never completed and weak political and central agency leadership accepted mediocrity instead of leading critical improvements. In particular, the SSC's approach to developing "fit for purpose" organisations, systems, processes and people was in my opinion weak and inadequate, evidenced by the continuing performance failures, including the tragedy of Cave Creek - the lessons of which seem to have been entirely forgotten.

 As an experienced business leader I had numerous discussions with the SSC, the central agencies and public service chief executives on what needed to be done. I also led the rebuild of DOC after Cave Creek, chaired the State Sector Standards Board, chaired an expert consultancy, managed/governed a number of private sector organisations and did numerous papers and speeches on the urgent need for continuing improvement – with little/no success. The SSC seemed averse to genuine improvement and many public service leaders were not up for it.

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In my opinion the SSC's failure to embrace systems leadership and ensure "fit for purpose" organisations, systems, processes and appointees was a fundamental failure to meet its core obligations and various ministers then and now have failed to step into the breach. The damaging consequences of this are that: appointees to senior roles are at risk of being set up to fail; these risks are not mitigated by the new model standards; and the public service is operating well below its potential.  

There are a number of other important factors that also need serious attention:

The public service is the professional arm of Government, the experts who advise the distinctly amateur politicians (Governments). Historically this has worked well with the pre-2000s public service charged with giving "free and frank" advice. Then politicians (led by PM Clark), who often found the professional analysis and advice constraining or politically embarrassing, changed the obligation to "no surprises".

What a disaster! Policy issues are inherently complex – for example the economic, social and environmental implications of climate change responses, and need excellent analysis. But this is now rare - we might surprise a minister, leading to New Zealand's growing list of policy failures. 

In my judgment, no Government that uses "no surprises" is credible.

A genuinely independent public service is a fundamental requirement. It would be well led, make independent, objective judgments and be less subservient and complicit. Somehow we seem to have lost this, and are sinking in a swamp of politics, spin and incompetence. And the traditional public service selection criteria of best person for the role would prevail - my recent Official Information Act odyssey on chief executive appointment criteria for a key State agency was insightful and very disappointing.

 In my view all these issues have reduced the quality of New Zealand's policies and their outcomes. New Zealand's economic, social and environmental performance has steadily declined since about 1960 when GDP/capita was in the top three in the OECD but is now only in the thirties and below the OECD average. There are an increasing number of serious social and environmental problems – including mental health, poverty/low incomes, welfare-dependence, obesity, diabetes, access to affordable and effective healthcare, housing cost/availability, border protection, IT security/ data protection, all forms of government regulation including banking/civil aviation/prices/profitability/building standards/earthquake resilience, water management, pollution of waterways, waste management including plastics, electricity/energy generally, justice, corrections and so on, and on.

Most of the "fixes" are only political band-aids (eg Working for Families and Well-being) and fundamental economic issues – such as productivity and sustainable family incomes and living standards - are too tough and ignored.

Now the most urgent issues are to restore "free and frank" and rebuild the core operating model of the public service. Without it recent changes towards better integration and alignment of agencies are only "shifting the deck chairs" - and a Royal Commission on this area would be well justified!

Unfortunately in my judgment the public service and the SSC are not learning organisations and their systems leadership models are dysfunctional, meaning too often weak senior leadership and performance management and personal development at all levels. A key consequence is a work environment for too many employees that is disempowering, reducing performance, productivity and employee satisfaction and increasing the risk of performance failures.

Against this background the model workplace standards are as useful as lipstick on the proverbial pig. If the core systems and processes are inadequate how can the model standards be effectively applied?


The Dominion Post